How Donald Trump could win

Story highlights

  • CNN/ORC national poll shows Trump, Clinton in a dead heat
  • Trump needs to make election a referendum on Clinton

This is the first of a two-part series looking at the path to victory for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Click here for the second story: How Hillary Clinton could win.

(CNN)Donald Trump is aiming to pull off one of the greatest political comebacks in history.

The Republican nominee is rebounding from a summer of repeated stumbles that threatened to undermine his candidacy, underscoring his ability to claw his way back and stay competitive despite controversies that would sink any other politician.
    Trump and Hillary Clinton enter the critical post-Labor Day phase of the campaign in a dead heat. A CNN/ORC national poll released Tuesday finds Trump ahead of Clinton by two points -- 45% to 43% -- among likely voters. The race is also tight among registered voters, where Clinton has a three point advantage. Both findings are within the margin of error.
    The narrowing of the race is a remarkable feat for Trump, who was down 10 points a month ago in CNN's Poll of Polls.
    Trump still faces serious hurdles that strong poll numbers can't mask. He's alienated much of the electorate, especially minorities who showed up in droves over the past two cycles to support Barack Obama. He's doing poorly among college-educated women, who are typically a Republican stronghold, and his rudimentary organization is dwarfed by Clinton's political machine in swing states where he still lags in most polls.

    Narrow path to the White House

    But if Trump can spend the next 63 days shining a relentless and unforgiving spotlight on Clinton's vulnerabilities and avoid more self-inflicted wounds, there could be a path -- however narrow -- for him to reach the White House.
    "Can he fundamentally alter the focus of this election right now — which is on him?" asked Bill Lacy, a GOP veteran who ran presidential campaigns for Bob Dole and Fred Thompson. "He needs to make this election about Secretary Clinton."
    Trump's best chance for altering the race lies in the presidential debates, which begin September 26 and will serve as critical tests of his temperament and knowledge. In front of a vast television audience, the GOP nominee could reshape perceptions of his character and readiness -- if he can avoid being drawn into gaffes and personality clashes by Clinton.
    He will benefit from rock-bottom expectations, given controversies whipped up by his tempestuous personality and the vast gulf in experience between Trump and Clinton.
    But the formal one-on-one presidential debates -- which personify the "commander-in-chief test" many Americans ponder as they select their next president -- are a far stiffer test for Trump than the crowded free-for-alls of the Republican primary race.
    There will be no space for the billionaire to relax and regenerate his energy while rivals spar or networks cut to commercial breaks. The intensity of the questioning and his confrontation with a prepared and experienced candidate like Clinton will leave no place to hide.
    Still, there is much for him to gain in the three scheduled televised showdowns and he will get an unfiltered chance to raise Clinton's political vulnerabilities before the American people.

    Clinton's liabilities

    Those liabilities, and the historic challenge Clinton faces in seeking a third consecutive White House term for her party and the nation's sour political mood, also help explain why Trump is still alive.
    In recent weeks, the Democratic nominee has yet again been hounded by the controversy over the private email server that has revived questions about her character and honesty. Her campaign has also been forced to deny claims of influence peddling between her family's philanthropic Clinton Foundation and the State Department while she ran US diplomacy.
    In an interview Monday with CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged Clinton's struggles with questions about honesty.
    "The truth is Hillary knows it's a problem and she's trying to figure out how to remedy it," Biden said. "My advice to her: The best way to remedy it is to talk about what you care about and talk about it with some passion and people will see through it."
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    For his part, Trump needs to do more than simply disqualify Clinton. He must show he's ready to lead the nation.
    To mount an authentic comeback, Trump must finally forge an emotional connection with voters outside his natural base, who have yet to embrace his vision of a nation under siege from terror and crime.
    "His appeal to the base Republican vote that won him the nomination in effect has turned many swing voters and Democratic voters against him," said Lacy. "He has to address it by being presidential and doing so constantly."
    The Clinton campaign doubts Trump has it in him.
    "He would have to do things in the last eight weeks that he appears to have been incapable of doing in the last 16 months," said Clinton's chief strategist Joel Benenson, citing Trump's need to build a ground game, court swing voters and improve his appeal to suburban women.
    Clinton is banking on a huge turnout from minority voters who helped Obama win the presidency in 2008 and 2012. So far, Trump's attempts to improve his paltry standing among voters who are suspicious of him has been halting and awkward.
    Last week, for instance, his trip to Mexico had clear presidential overtones. But hours later, he delivered an angry speech on immigration that further alienated Latino voters and prompted some Latino GOP leaders to take back their endorsement of Trump. And on Monday, he refused to rule out granting legal status to undocumented immigrants.
    And on Saturday, Trump met an African-American congregation in Detroit in a bid to counter claims he is a racist. He was politely received but didn't seem to change many minds, according to interviews by CNN afterward.
    Still, signs of life in Trump's polling and his energetic performance last week cheer some GOP operatives.

    'The wind is at our back'

    "It's not just the crowd size, and the enthusiasm and the rallies, but it's (that) all of these polls are now closing in major ways," Republican National Committee Chief Strategist Sean Spicer told CNN. "Look at the wind right now ... the wind is at our back."
    Still, Trump has fewer routes than Clinton to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
    He must start by taking solid red states such as Arizona and Georgia, where Clinton is unusually competitive, off the table. He must also lock down North Carolina, a swing state in recent elections without which he may lack a credible route to 270 electoral votes.
    Then Trump must close in on Clinton in all the swing states, in Iowa and Virginia and New Hampshire, as well as Ohio and Florida.
    Then, to win a narrow victory in the electoral college, Trump must turn at least one state that went for President Barack Obama in 2012.
    Possible candidates include Pennsylvania, where he currently trails Clinton by between three and nine points in polls released over the past month. Another possible target is Michigan, where recent polls have Clinton up by 11 points.
    Pennsylvania is a must-win for Trump. If Clinton adds just the Keystone state and Virginia -- home to her running mate, Tim Kaine -- to states considered solidly Democratic, she will be only 10 electoral votes short of the presidency. That will happen even if Trump wins perennial bellwethers Ohio and Florida.
    A recent Pennsylvania poll by Monmouth University shows Trump is dangerously weak in the populous Philadelphia suburbs that are often decisive -- a position he must address if he is to compete in the state. Clinton leads 62% to 29% in seven congressional districts around Philadelphia, an area that typically accounts for 40% of statewide turnout. Obama won the region 62% to 37% over Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
    Trump does better than Romney in less populous and diverse western and central Pennsylvania -- but not by enough to make up for his deficit around Philadelphia. He also trails Clinton among white voters with a college degree by 10 points. Romney won that subset by 15 points in 2012.
    Unless Trump can turn those voters around, his hopes in Pennsylvania, and in key suburban districts in other swing states such as Columbus, Ohio, look remote.

    Alienating moderate Republicans

    That's why it surprised many analysts when Trump ditched a plan to soften the hardline on immigration that alienated many moderate white Republicans.
    According to CNN exit polls of the Republican primary in Pennsylvania, only 12% of voters said immigration was the most important issue to them. But 60% of Trump voters said it was -- suggesting that the billionaire's position on the issue locks in his base but hurts him among less ideological Republican voters.
    Trump's fiery immigration speech last week suggested he has given up on broadening his coalition and instead is betting that the pool of voters marginalized by globalization and the loss of blue-collar jobs is much larger than pollsters believe.
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    "This speech is directed at those people living in Ohio, who have thought for whatever reason that their country is not what it was when they grew up," Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told CNN after his immigration speech last week.
    Trump supporters are also predicting that Democrats have underestimated the size of the GOP nominee's support.
    "There's a factor in this election that the media is just ignoring and that is that Hillary Clinton is the most unlikeable person who has ever run for office. Her support is ten miles wide and a half of an inch thick," said Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative commentator from Nevada and author of the recently published "Angry White Male." "I think Hillary Clinton's number of voters will be down 30% versus Obama's four years ago, and I think Trump's share of the white electorate will be up dramatically. He'll gain 4 million extra votes, most of them (from) the white community."
    Trump's best bet may be to target the Rust Belt where his anti-trade rhetoric resonates.
    Kathleen Hartnett White, a member of Trump's economic advisory council, says the billionaire should relentlessly stress growth, expanding energy production and the slashing of regulations.
    "I hope after Labor Day, and I think that is a good day to pivot, that these should be issues in those Rust Belt states," she said. "I would reiterate them over and over again."

    October surprise

    If all else fails, Trump could benefit from an October surprise.
    A stunning news event, such as a terror attack at home or abroad, could prompt some fearful voters to fully embrace Trump's call for curbs on Muslim immigration and warnings that Clinton just does not understand the scale of the threats facing Americans.
    Or a sudden global crisis, economic shock -- or even a smoking gun suggesting a hidden Clinton scandal -- could also shake up the race.
    Unless he starts making headway soon, with early voting only weeks away, it may take something that jarring for Trump to win. And it's always possible that Trump has already sown the seeds of his own defeat simply by alienating so many voters on the way to the Republican nomination.
    "Even if they ran a miracle comeback campaign," Lacy said, "at this point I honestly don't know if it is starting soon enough."